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Review: ‘Black Earth’: The Holocaust as History and Warning

Last year, I interviewed Yale history professor Timothy Snyder about his book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, which argues that the reason so many more Jews were murdered outside Germany than inside it was that they were stateless.

Crucially, Black Earth points out that in the countries previously occupied by the Soviet Union — which wiped out their prior state institutions — Nazi occupiers were far more ruthless and efficient at killing Jews than in Germany itself.

I intended to finish reading the book and publish a review far sooner, but events — the presidential campaign, my own book — intervened. And in the interim, a new Nazi analogy crept into American political dialogue, one that made Snyder’s book all the more relevant — namely, the idea that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is some kind of throwback to Hitler and his Brownshirts, or at the very least is appealing to alt-right fascists through subtle antisemitic “dog whistles.”

I suspect that Snyder might be at least somewhat sympathetic to that view, though not convinced by it. The latter part of Black Earth — the “warning” — is that xenophobia (broadly defined) is poised to make a comeback, given the failure of states around the world. He is a man of the left: he gives credence to the most alarmist climate change estimates, for example, warning that we could see states disintegrate further under ecological pressure that destroys agriculture and sets vast populations in motion.

But one of Snyder’s most valuable contributions in Black Earth is to remind us that Nazism was something much more than just antisemitism taken to an extreme.

Hitler had a “zoological” view of the world, where the ideal state was one of constant racial strife, where only the strongest races would survive. Jews prevented that struggle, he believed, by introducing ideas of various kinds, from Christianity to communism. In his imagination, the Soviet Union was just a giant Judeo-Bolshevik plot.

That unique and bizarre worldview is what led Hitler to accelerate the murder of Jews even as Nazi armies retreated from the Soviet Union. If he could not defeat the Judeo-Bolshevik system through direct confrontation, by wiping out the Soviet Union and colonizing the Ukraine, then he would at least do so indirectly, by ridding the world of Jews and allowing the stronger eastern races to prevail.

Hitler was not a German nationalist; he was prepared to see Germany defeated, to destroy the Jews.

There is nothing even remotely comparable in American politics today. Trump’s nationalism is strongly state-centered — a point that conservative radio host Mark Levin brings up in attacking Trump.

When Trump warns that we need to strengthen our borders, or else “we don’t have a country,” he shares Snyder’s concern for the collapse of states — though Snyder would likely see the small minority of extremists among Trump supporters as the kind of demons that state collapse would unleash.

Snyder is at pains to point out that the prevailing narrative of the Holocaust, dominated by the German Jewish experience in which discrimination led to death, is actually atypical. Most Jews who were murdered lived in the east, where ordinary Germans who might have saved Jews at home readily murdered Jews in a lawless environment. The Nazis also found a new “political resource” in former Soviet collaborators eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the new occupiers by killing Jews.

From the perspective of Jewish victims — and survivors — it mattered little whether their murderers were motivated by old-style antisemitism or more complex political motivations. But the statelessness created by Stalin was the necessary precursor to the Final Solution.

Snyder told Breitbart News of similar potential for genocide today: in Syria, and its refugee crisis, the world risks repeating history, for example. The problem is that state-building has little support — from Trump, or anyone else.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. His new book, See No Evil: 19 Hard Truths the Left Can’t Handle, will be published by Regnery on July 25 and is available for pre-order through Amazon. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

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